The Spatial Barrier: The (Hopeless?) Gamification of Conversation

At the end of her talk, Brianna Wu fielded a question about what her studio, Giant Spacekat, is working on next. With great enthusiasm, Ms. Wu began to describe her and her studio’s plans for making conversational interaction a more malleable, exploratory and just plain fun experience compared to the current “Pick an option from this list and get back to shooting zombies” rut. As she said, and rightly so, the gaming industry has, for better or worse, mastered making violence a pleasurable interaction, but has unfortunately regressed in depth of conversational interaction. Giant Spacekat is interested in righting this wrong.

I certainly applaud this intent. Finding new dimensions of reality to emulate in a pleasurable, ludic fashion is a must, else we risk stagnation of the industry. However, I’m concerned at how successful or pleasurable a heavily gamified conversation system can really be and question how much can really be done in this space at this point in mainstream technology; we’re a long way off from the pie-in-the-sky “Milo”-type AI constructs that would really make such systems work.

My thoughts on this are a bit scattered (my own fault for not writing this down immediately after Wu’s talk), but I shall do my best to explain them in a fashion that makes some semblance of sense. To jump into the Wayback Machine and briefly return to our conversation about Marie Laure-Ryan’s examination of narratology, the biggest barrier to the proliferation and success of a ludically-focused conversation system is gaming’s proclivity for spatial emulation and exploration. What makes simulated violence so compelling a mechanic is its physicality and tangible, visual feedback; video games are called “video” games for a reason. This isn’t to say that non-spatial exploration is not unheard of, quite the contrary; as I and some of my fellow classmates touched on in our podcast, games can and do explore the mental, conversational space quite often, Kentucky Route Zero being our chief example. However, this ludic aspect is typically only effective due to its simplistic choice system. In KRZ, for instance, anything more than its “1,2,3” list system would be a hindrance to the excellent narrative.

Making ludic mechanics around conversations and dialogue choices is also difficult from a player connection and “Uncanny Valley” standpoint: contrary to simulated violence, conversation and choice within discursive spheres is not an action that comes with a mechanistic barrier (for the vast majority of people, I will note…I do not intend to demean those who have impediments or other such disabilities); the mental-to-verbal/visual speech act is all but unconscious, while traversal and world interaction (violent or otherwise) requires actual mechanical interaction, with a clear, immediate transaction between input and output, that exact loop that defines video games. With conversation, while the outcomes can often be great, and effective convincing and argumentation can certainly be serious tasks, the  inputs are not as one-to-one. Adding unexpected barriers to conversational effectuality, outside of deliberately trying to create an exploration of impediments or the like (which, by the way, is a really interesting idea), is jarring and strange.

Take, for instance, The Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion. In an attempt to gamify the Speechcraft ability, which had previously been the purview of a random number generator in previous games (also a shitty solution), the developers introduced this baffling minigame featuring pie pieces and facial clues, which made every attempt at persuasion an unpleasant, immersion-breaking hassle.

The strange thing is that the current system in use in many games with conversation systems works pretty damn well. For another example from Bethesda Softworks, the conversation systems in Fallout 3 and New Vegas are pretty excellent, if in need of more options and breadth (more along the lines of their elder, isometric brethren). The Speech skills are built up by player choice and enhanced through ludic interaction (finding objects that boost your conversational abilities when used, etc.), but the actual conversations are fast yet tangibly rewarding, with every successful speech check being met with a soft, addicting “cha-ching” sound, an XP boost and some form of advancement in the game. Though still adhering to the classic “list of dialogue options” paradigm, it still manages to feel interesting and fun to successfully navigate conversations.

I do not wish to be a Debby Downer and I’m not trying to do the “because it hasn’t worked so far means it will never work!” brand of pessimism. However, the gaming paradigm has been so thoroughly built and shaped in such a way, through its focus on spatial navigation, that non-spatially-focused ludic interactions seem doomed to fail. Anything short of very advanced AIs or a complete redefinition of what current mainstream gaming is (which might not be the worst thing, but seems a bit lofty) will never make the cut. Making gaming conversations more complex is a wonderful ideal (Especially in the RPG space! Down with morality binaries!), but doing this from a mechanistic angle rather than through a pure content and writing angle seems unnecessary; the systems that already exist work well…they just need to be broadened. Though I wish Wu and her company the best, I can’t help but feel that sort of conversational malleability and excessive gamification just plain isn’t necessary or viable, even within the smaller, independent space in which Giant Spacekat operates. It runs the risk of becoming a gimmick, and not a good one.

But there is another way. Though I don’t wish to get too in-depth, crowdsourced conversation and multi-person, emergent roleplaying is an excellent way to tackle this problem. That’s what makes Dungeons and Dragons and other tabletop games so compelling: the conversational and storytelling possibilities are limitless in permutation because everything is being driven moment to moment by a sentient creator. Developing better tools to allow that sort of dungeon master freedom to fit into the digital space is, I feel, a much more obtainable, interesting solution. For a very, very rough example of what I’m talking about, please turn your attention to this wonderful video.

Of course, there’s a good chance I might have entirely misinterpreted what Wu was saying, but these are just my two cents.

2 thoughts on “The Spatial Barrier: The (Hopeless?) Gamification of Conversation

  1. I agree with you that better dialog interactions may not be necessary and may even make a game’s experience worse (like how you said for KRZ), but I wouldn’t mind to have new type of games that would be focused on dialog and that would have innovative ways of implementing that.
    A game that is very interesting in those terms is Façade in which you talk to the characters by typing anything you want. The characters however have a lot of limitations in understanding what you type and they probably pick some key words to move the story forward. I believe that in the future we will have more games like that but with better AI and that may even become a new genre of games.

  2. First of all, excellent post. I’m really glad that somebody explored what Wu said about dialog. Second of all, I want to link an idea Yahtzee Croshaw had about an alternate way to portray conversations in games. He proposes that one could use the thumbsticks to navigate organically between different topics and to adjust the tone expressed by the player character. It’s really interesting and worth a read.

    Also, he had a bit about the current popular system in one of his videos that I’d be remiss not to share.


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